Defending the commons, territories and the right to food and water


LRAN | 26 October 2010

LRAN Briefing Paper Series, October 2010


Addressing the Food, Finance, Energy and Climate Crises through Food Sovereignty and Agrarian Reform

In April 2010, social movement representatives from all over the world gathered in Cochabamba at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change. Highlighting their respect for Mother Earth, they presented evidence of the dire injuries she is suffering, and put forward their proposals for urgently redirecting development policies towards a more sustainable and just future. Two of Mother Earth’s most important forms - land and water - are being exploited, abused and destroyed by human beings under the banners of economic development, growth and progress. Today, the world is faced with multiple, inter-related crises of climate, food, energy, and finance that have resulted after several decades of corporate-driven globalisation, neoliberal policy domination, unsustainable resource extraction and unchecked financial liberalisation.

This second collection of the Land Research Action Network (LRAN) briefing papers takes up these themes of concern and presents some of the experiences of activist researchers working to defend the commons and vulnerable territories. As before, the papers have been written and edited for readers who are not native speakers of English, and it is intended that they can be relatively easily translated. They are particularly aimed at activists and community leaders within social movements working on land and agriculture.

The papers can be grouped in three parts. The first part presents analyses of the concurrent crises and highlights the impact they have brought for vulnerable people who directly rely on their land.

The first paper, “Land and World Food Crisis” by Peter Rosset, presents the soaring prices of staple crops in 2008 and 2009 as the clearest evidence yet of the structural problems in the world food production and supply system. The short-termism of industrial agriculture that provides high returns for rich investors and wealthy classes is contrasted with agro-ecological peasant agriculture, where the returns largely go to local communities, society at large, and to the future generations. However, family farms, which produce over two-thirds of the food in Asia, Africa and Latin America, receive insufficient genuine support (infrastructure, institutional, participatory research, and capacity building) and financial investment. The Food Sovereignty alternative proposed by small-scale farmers and social movements is put forward as the only long-term approach for resolving the current food crisis.

The second paper turns the focus on the crisis exposed by the starkly unjust agrarian structure of many countries of the global South. A case in point is presented in the second paper entitled “Sugarcane Monocropping and Counter Agrarian Reform in Brazil” by Maria Luisa Mendonça, which describes the grave problems associated with the expansion of monocultures in Brazil despite the urgent need for land redistribution within a comprehensive agrarian reform to provide a genuine long-term means of livelihood for the millions of landless and displaced people. Her analysis focuses on the vast sugar plantations that continue to be promoted to increase ethanol production for export, and describes how large-scale plantations pull migrants, typically displaced from farmlands and forests elsewhere, to work on these plantations, which have a long history of treacherous conditions and labour law violations.

The third paper presents a brief exposition of the climate crisis. Most climate change models predict that damages will disproportionally affect the regions populated by small scale fisherfolk, smallhold producers and particularly rainfed agriculturalists in the South. However, the major causes of climate change lie far from their control. Equally, many of the climate ‘solutions’ are also designed exclusively in the global North but implemented in the South. Controversial initiatives currently put forward at the international policy level, such as the REDD proposals (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), agrofuel development are strongly criticised by many in the social movements for their counterproductive results, the hidden theft of resources, and the countless problems of accountability. Many such schemes intensify the difficulties facing forest and other rural communities, who are rarely involved in key decisions regarding the use of natural resources in project areas. Meanwhile, the traditional technologies and knowledge of smallhold producers, pastoralists, fishers, and indigenous communities are subject to steady erosion through a variety of external pressures, undermining a storehouse of lessons in adaptive capacity and resilience to weather and climate change.

The second set of papers relates to different ways in which land and territory are viewed from different perspectives. The papers present brief examinations of the issues and dynamics of common resource tenure, the international work to define and recognise rights to land, and the threat of massive dispossession of land as global land grabbing expands.

Setting the context for all the papers in this section, the fourth paper entitled “In Defence of the Commons” by Shalmali Guttal and Mary Ann Manahan examines the critical importance of preserving the natural commons, particularly land and water, as a vital, community-managed resource available for successive generations. The value of collective resources has been greatly, and sometimes entirely, overlooked in national development strategies in the South, and this paper examines the various ways in which they have been placed under threat. A critical factor is the weakening of common property management systems, undermined as the paradigms of privatisation and market commodification have dominated policy development. As the paper points out, networks and movements of the poor around the world are reacting to the destruction of their natural resources, and standing up in defence of the commons and the common property systems which sustain them.

The fifth paper in our series entitled “Rights to Land and Territory” by Sofia Monsalve examines the subject of ensuring access to land as a basic human right. While international legal instruments do not yet recognise a human right to land, there are international instruments that recognise the importance of access to land in ensuring the right to food and as a foundation of the rights of indigenous peoples. However, she points out, in country after country, States choose to build alliances with wealthy private companies and transnational corporations (TNCs) in privatising land and extracting natural resources rather than preserving them as the commons and upholding peoples’ rights to food. Alternative models for development, such as the food sovereignty model formulated and proposed by Via Campesina, take a rights-based approach, recognising the right of self-determination of local communities including their rights to govern, manage, and care for their eco-systems and natural wealth. The food sovereignty model also focuses on redistributive tenure reforms without which, it is argued, it would not be possible to overcome discrimination based on gender, age, ethnicity, race, caste.

A contrasting perspective sees land not as a right, but as a commodity. This considers that land is not only a productive, but also a financially valuable asset that should be tradable in order to extract the highest value from it. In this perspective, other values that community groups often attach to land such as the possibility of self-reliance in working the land, the availability of a social and kinship safety net where there is land for the poor, the spiritual elements endowed in land, trees and water, the educational value of learning from the land, and more fundamental values of heritage and identity tend not to be counted. The increasing international interest in the agricultural land resources of other countries has led to discussions on placing limits to trading land. A recent meeting of social movement representatives in Kuala Lumpur drew attention to the increasing instance of aggressive land purchases throughout the Global South. Based on their discussions, Mary Ann Manahan asks the question “Is Asia for Sale?” (our sixth paper). She critically examines the foreign acquisition of agricultural lands in Asia that have included the expropriation of lands and territories for industrial agriculture. A variety of other mechanisms by which land is being grabbed throughout the region are also highlighted in this paper. The loss of these lands is often disastrous for the local people. It means dispossession of the means of subsistence and of living spaces, resulting rapidly in reduced standards of living and often, the complete destitution of families and communities involved.

The two annexes to this set of briefing papers are particularly relevant to the issues put forward in this paper. The first presents the text of an urgent open letter to international finance institutions, including the World Bank, entitled “Stop land grabbing now!” that was supported by over 100 civil society groups from around the world. The second annex reproduces the main sections of the report summarising the Asian Civil Society consultation meeting on the FAO Guidelines on Good Governance of Land and Natural Resources. This report identifies some of the key problems relating to land and natural resource tenure in the region and sets out some of the principles, actions and proposals for improved governance of land.

The final section of this edition of our briefing papers turns to focus on the experience of the local, and the campaigns conducted from grassroots to the national level to call for redressing the wrongs of dispossession, renewed action to redistribute land, and changes to government policies on agriculture and trade.

In the paper entitled “The Grand Theft of Dey Krahorm”, David Pred tells the story of a vibrant urban community in Cambodia, whose land was sold beneath their feet to a property developer, in collusion with local chiefs. The paper presents the struggle as it unfolded, from the perspective of someone working closely with the community throughout the resistance campaign. The destruction of their homes, ruthlessly torn down by bulldozers and hammers in the early hours of one morning, had devastating consequences for the community. While the campaign to keep their homes was lost, the author reflects on the moderate successes in drawing national and international attention to this case, and the startling number of other cases of forced evictions and speculative land grabs within Cambodia. The determination of the Dey Krahorm community is clearly evident from this story, which has inspired other threatened communities in the country to resist eviction and make use of the lessons learnt.

Our eighth paper, “Bringing Filipino agrarian reform back to life?”, by Carmina Flores Obanil, presents an account of the trials and tribulations of the campaign that eventually saw the passage of the renewed comprehensive agrarian reform law in the Philippines. She describes some of the actions that helped to draw the attention of the media, the nation and the Parliamentarians, to the uncompleted project for land reform in the country. With strong grassroots support, pressure was brought on Parliament to allocate further resources and budget to the Department of Agrarian Reform, dismissing the earlier political pressure for the Department to abandon its land redistribution role. She notes that not only will further vigilance be required to ensure implementation of the Bill, but that further campaigning work will be needed to promote the development of a more comprehensive view of agrarian reform that goes beyond questions of land distribution and ensures protection for the commons and the farmlands of smallholder communities and indigenous peoples.

The final paper entitled “Formalizing Inequality”, by Natalie Bugalski and David Pred, refers to the programme of land titling in Cambodia. The paper takes up the case of a community threatened with eviction from its city centre location at the heart of Pnohm Penh. In this case, the Boeng Kak community was placed under threat at exactly the time when the international donor-supported land titling programme should have allocated the residents secure long term rights to their land. As the area was exempted from the programme, local people’s rights to the land were downgraded and dismissed. The focus of this piece is the responsibilities of the Land Management and Administration Project of the World Bank. The paper describes the local campaign to bring the Bank to account for the damages caused by the denial of their rights, the diminishing of their claims, loss of their land and the dismantling of their community. The case has been brought to the World Bank’s Inspection Panel and the outcome is awaited.

Altogether these briefing papers present some of the central issues in the continuing struggle to ensure that the poor and the peasantry regain their rights to govern and steward the commons and other natural resources on which they build their livelihoods. They emphasise the multiple crises facing the countries of the South of climatic instability, unsustainable development, and excessive resource extraction, of food price instability, the systematic undermining of food sovereignty and the long-term viability of the small-scale farming sector, and of a new wave of land grabbing. They argue for a human rights based approach and reject the notion that land is no more than a tradable commodity. They call for public policies and resources to be redirected towards supporting peasants and smallhold producers and the urban poor, so that they can live and work on the land that they identify with and rely on. Collectively, they call for greater international, regional national and local policy attention to the importance and value of the commons and strong community institutions for a functioning and sustainable society.

Table of Contents

- Land and the World Food Crisis, Peter Rosset

PDF - 823.9 kb
- Sugarcane Monocropping and Counter Agrarian Reform in Brazil, Maria Luisa Mendonça

PDF - 1 Mb
- Rights to land and territory, Sofia Monsalve

PDF - 698.2 kb
- In Defence of the Commons, Shalmali Guttal and Mary Ann Manahan

- Is Asia for Sale?, Mary Ann Manahan

PDF - 568.7 kb
- The Grand Theft of Dey Krahorm, David Pred

PDF - 443.6 kb
- Bringing Filipino agrarian reform back to life, Carmina Flores-Obanil

PDF - 677.5 kb
- Formalizing Inequality, Natalie Bugalski and David Pred

PDF - 1.1 Mb
- Annex 1 Open letter from civil society groups to IFIs: Stop land grabbing now!

PDF - 348 kb
- Annex 2 Report on Asian Civil Society consultation on the FAO Guidelines on Good Governance of Land and Natural Resources

PDF - 1.9 Mb
Original source: LRAN

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